International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers
Today is the tenth International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers, and here in London authorities are marking it by continuing their sustained attack on sex workers in Soho, which has previously been the safest place to work in England. Today more women will be appearing in court to try to prevent the closure of their workplaces following the police raids on the night of 4th December.
On that night 200 police in riot helmets raided over 20 addresses, with sometimes 15 baton wielding officers rushing up to flats that they know have only one sex worker and a maid in them. Roughly half of the ‘walk-up’ brothels in Soho have been closed by police, leaving sex workers and maids out of work and in danger of taking far greater risks to survive. Street sex workers are 10 times more likely to be attacked than indoor workers, but sex workers have their rent to pay like everyone else, as well as dependent children and other relatives.
Met Police Commander Alison Newcomb, speaking to the invited camera crews said that “This is not about the prosecution of prostitutes, this is about making the area safe. We do know a lot of the women are trafficked or are vulnerable so this is about taking the danger out of Soho.” Her claims are tenuous at best; even aside from wondering what filming women being manhandled into police vans does to decrease their vulnerability, Soho sex workers are denying being coerced to work and asking “Where are the victims”?
In the week and a half since the raids, the police have not managed to come up with one coerced sex worker. Neither have they made any arrests for rape or trafficking offences. They did manage to endanger women by filming them and exposing their identities, and even told one woman’s daughter what she did for a living while raiding her house. They did hold many women for up to 23 hours, bullying them into accepting cautions for criminal offences. Foreign women were taken to a ‘safe place’ to determine whether they were trafficked, ‘safe place’ here being a euphemism for ‘police station’. Some of these women may now be deported.
Since the raids, Westminster City Council’s planning committee have rubberstamped proposals to knock down the site of many of the brothels to create a new development which was opposed not just by sex workers, but by residents of Soho, the Soho Society and English Heritage. Sex workers in Soho are trapped between the jaws of gentrification and immigration authorities.
A series of raids in Mayfair last year were justified by police who made unsubstantiated claims that neighbours had complained about anti-social behaviour, but turned up with UKBA officers and Chinese and Romanian interpreters. The night of the Soho raids CCTV footage of muggings and assaults on the street were released by the police. These crimes were unrelated to the brothels, but police are utilising the stigma associated with prostitution to escape scrutiny or censure for their actions. Put simply, they are relying on people not caring about sex workers.
So far, their hopes have not been misplaced when it comes to major media outlets. The opposition of local residents to the eviction of sex workers has barely been reported, and the historic strike in Chinatown where for 2 hours in October restaurants, shops and brothels stopped working in solidarity against UKBA raids was only covered briefly in the Guardian, and the sex workers were not mentioned. Lack of coverage of the Soho raids continues the trend.
Niki Adams from the English Collective of Prostitutes, which has spearheaded the campaign against the raids and evictions in Soho and has successfully defended immigrant sex workers in Mayfair against deportation, commented:
“Under the prostitution laws, hundreds of women are being criminalised, evicted from their homes and workplaces, imprisoned and abused by the police. This should be of concern to anyone who is interested in women’s safety, health, welfare, rights and social justice. Yet as sex workers we have not been able to rely on prominent feminists to defend us. They are often the ones promoting repressive legislation such as the Policing and Crime Act (2010) which made it easier for the police to arrest us on the street and close sex workers’ flats. Our hope is that this will change as people see that our lives and fate are tied up with their own and speak up in our defence.”
English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP)
Facebook Page: English Collective of Prostitutes
December 17 – International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers
Feministing.com – The Soho raids were not about trafficking